Life of a
20th Century Explorer
G.V. Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya, July 8, 1909 to Indian parents. He had a modest formal education, no college, never married, and has no known descendants or surviving relations. Yet during a long and productive life, G.V. Desani helped define modern and post-modern English and Indian literature and secure the stature of Anglo-Indian writers. Later, as a columnist and educator, Desani made unique contributions to world religion by explaining the relationship and commonality between Indian bhakti and guru traditions and the Buddha's traditional Theravada teachings on Vipassana meditation. Along the way he also provided a million-or-so-words worth of cultural and social commentary.
When Desani was about five his family returned to their home in Shikārpur, Sindh, India (now Southeast Pakistan). In those days Sindh was a secular and religious crossroads filled with Hindu, Muslim and Sufi adherents and practitioners. The diverse garbs and outdoor practitioners (including so-called "naked ascetics") must have been fascinating to a bright, curious boy.
The boy, Govind, was considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school teachers and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family. Once his father, beyond frustration with his boy's independent ways, demanded to know his career intentions: Would he go into the family business? "I like books," Desani shot back. "Books, books?" his father sputtered, "I'll buy you a bookstore!" Another anecdote: "Boy, you don't understand," Desani was told by a favorite aunt, upon informing her that he would go to England and become famous. "You don't even know English!"
Desani ran away from home several times. One incident which led to his final, dramatic escape gesture, was being sent, with a bodyguard/servant, on an ox-drawn cart through the Indian countryside to collect business debts for his father, a wood merchant. Instead, or perhaps soon thereafter, Desani somehow found his way onto a steamer headed for the U.K. He arrived in Great Britain with 40 pounds (and no English), at 17.
After his first chilled-to-the-bone London winter (to keep from freezing Desani stuffed newspaper into a second-hand overcoat), he somehow — and quickly — made his mark on the world's preeminent city. Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, brimming with vitality and self-confidence, the young Indian was befriended by George Lansbury, a prominent member of the British parliament. His new patron arranged for Desani to have access to the British Museum and its fabled reading room.
Gifted with a rare knack for engendering immediate, unbridled enthusiasm in acquaintances and total strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by fellow rooming house boarders that he borrowed five pound sterling from each, returning their monies only when he was ready to move on.
For the next 20 or so years Desani, ever the intrepid traveler, sailed frequently between India and England. He took bit parts in early silent films. He worked in England as a stringer for Indian newspapers and in India as a stringer for British newspapers. He did a stint as headmaster at the same grammar school from which he had once been expelled. (According to Desani, he had the unfortunate duty of relieving from his post the headmaster who had once expelled him.) He gave lectures in India and English on Indian antiquities. Always a seeker, Desani was fascinated by the diversity of the "socio-religio" (to quote Hatterr) underpinnings of the vast British colony.
By happenstance, Desani arrived back in England just days before Great Britain joined World War II. In those days, independence-minded partisans in India and the U.K. saw the war as an opportunity for India to press for independence. In response, the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) produced wartime radio broadcasts highlighting positive aspects of India's bond with England. Desani, in his mid-30s, was by then a reliable member of the Establishment. He became a BBC-sponsored lecturer and radio commentator. He took part in educational programs in Hindi and English which described India's heritage and discussed its place in the modern world. A favorite anecdote of Desani's was the time he spoke to a large prison audience. Ever polite, he thanked the men for choosing to attend his lecture. The remark brought the house down and immediately won over a notably tough crowd.
Desani's only known surviving lecture/broadcast is India Invites. It was initially read at New College, Oxford in 1941. In addition to Desani, BBC war commentators included T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster. A key organizer of the effort was George Orwell, later to author 1984 and Animal Farm. During the war, Desani's avocation became his writings. His literary efforts eventually gelled into what he dryly called a gesture. Notably, as Desani observed in his introduction to All About H. Hatterr, there was no market for gestures, only for novels. Later he learned that even the market for gestures described as novels (or vice versa) was hardly robust.
Publication of All About H. Hatterr
After being turned down by more than a few publishers, and copy edited and corrected more than a few times, All About Mr. Hatterr, as it was originally named, was copyrighted and published in 1948 by Francis Aldor. The book was an immediate sensation and attended with rave reviews. Hatterr was also very favorably received in the U.S. and India. Over the next 40 years, Desani was to revise or expand his beloved novel at least four times. Editions continue to be printed, the most recent authorized edition is from Aleph Classics, New Delhi (2018).
Hatterr made grand fun of all manner of social structure, stricture, status, religious instruction, spiritualists, and language itself: English, its bastardized stepchild Indian-English (Babu), Sanskrit and Hindi. Yet the book also offered glimpses of a man seeking to interpret the human condition — despite its obvious shortcomings — as having — if not a higher purpose — at least a positive trajectory. Writing in 2019, reviewers still find new things to say about this 70-year-old novel. A recent academic paper pointed out that until Desani published Hatterr in London, of all places, literary Brits doubted the ability and intellect of non-native English speakers to fully master the language. George Orwell, who had lived and worked in India, was a staunch defender of English written by native Englishmen. He was none too pleased when Hatterr appeared and he provided one of the few negative reviews of its initial printing.
In short order Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake in fleshing out an exotic, polyglot, supra-national novel that reinvigorated the Mother Tongue. Hatterr had a major influence on contemporaries including Saul Bellow and later writers, including Salman Rushdie, both of whom were generous enough to credit Desani's masterpiece as inspiring their own work in some measure. The anti-hero Hatterr's hilarious and essentially clueless attempts to reconcile East and West deftly foreshadowed contemporary challenges of maintaining self, civilization, and true faith in a pluralistic, secular, rapidly-changing world.
In 1950 Desani's highly personal poetic play Hali was performed on the London staged and published. It is difficult to imagine two more different works of fiction. While Hali may have puzzled Hatterr enthusiasts (E.M. Forster called it a "private mythology"), it at least captured well the growing spiritual disquiet — a mid-life crisis? — of the author.
A third book — illustrating the range and scope of Desani's interests, intellect and ambition — was to be a critical biography of Mahatma Gandhi. (Gandhi, the lawyer-ascetic-revolutionary who inspired and guided the India movement for independence, had been assassination only a few years before.) The manuscript for this book was lost in a tragic comedy of errors which included a completed manuscript left in a taxi and being unable to decipher a deceased stenographer's shorthand notebook.
In 1951, Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal search for.... what?? That question fully occupied the next decade and a half of his life.
An Intense Spiritual Quest
Having written one madcap spiritual adventure, Desani proceeded to live another. Half-supported by a well-off cousin, Desani for years scoured the Indian sub-continent with the zeal of an investigative reporter searching for absolute proof of The Other: proof of the Divine in a culture with one foot in modernity and the other in ossified tradition, a multitude of family bakti traditions and rapidly disappearing mystical craft practitioners. With enormous physical and mental energy, and multiple languages, Desani earnestly sought out gurus and other spiritualists and mentalists across India and — using bravado, sincere devotion, a photographic memory, and a thoroughly disarming charm — collected all manner of white and black magic oral teachings, tantric yantras, mantras, and arcane yogic practices. In one memorable incident, Desani had himself buried alive, a favorite trick of local yogis, just to see what all the fuss was about. Upon being retrieved after the requisite number of minutes below ground his conclusion was that to avoid a panic, which would consume the little oxygen available, you must have confidence in those who remain above.
Desani recognized early on that the Indian family/ascetic guru/chela system — spanning and melding Hindu and Muslim traditions — was unique among the world spiritual paths. The aging and obscure practitioners Desani encountered saw him as a worthy — or perhaps least unworthy — recipient of their crafts. The challenge of what to do with the gathered materials, the experiences and of drawing communicable conclusions from those years occupied Desani for the rest of his life.
In the early 1960s, in a climax worthy of any grand adventure, Desani embarked on the most rigorous of spiritual disciplines: pursuit of Enlightenment. His first attempt — at a Zen monastery in Japan — was not a success. Subsequently, however, he spend about a year at the Panditãrãma Shwe Taung Gon Sasana Yeiktha center for the practice and study of Theravada Buddhist teachings in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). Upon arrival at the monastery, Desani joined a small group of Western practitioners receiving initial instructions from the monastery's famous Abbot, Mahasi Sayadaw. The master, in Burmese, began his standard lecture, pointing again and again at a blackboard drawing of a triangle which showed Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana, enlightenment) at the apex. Finally, the lecture ended. "Questions?" said the translating monk. Desani piped up, "How much?" The monk, shocked, flatly refused to render the insolent remark into Burmese. The solemn lecture turned into pandemonium as Sayadaw demanded "What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was abjectly provided ("He fables, 'What does it cost?' ") the Abbot, according to Desani, roared with laughter.
Soon enough Desani was assigned a long, narrow room where his assigned practice was 20-plus hours a day of walking meditation with the instruction: "Observe." Years later Desani told his classes at UT Austin that after a few months he became so sensitive that he could 'feel' sound on his cheek. Eventually the Abbot told him, "You may go." He also authorized Desani to provide instructions in Vipassana meditation. Traditionally, such a dismissal would only be provided to a practitioner who had attained at least the first of the four stages of Nibbana, Buddhist enlightenment. Desani neither claimed nor denied such.
Anonymous Column, Short Stories and Academic Papers
At age 53 or so, Desani began writing again for something other than his private journals. Over the next three decades he produced a significant amount of world-class fiction and commentary. His short stories can be found in Hali and Collected Stories, available from McPherson & Co. Other writings, such as his then-anonymous column "Very High and Very Low", which ran in the Illustrated Weekly of India, are currently only available in libraries or on microfiche. A number of Desani's powerful essays, written in the '60s and '70s, are currently unavailable.
In Hatterr, through his spiritual quest, and in his later years as a full professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, Desani delighted in debunking spiritual teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. He was particularly critical of hatha yoga, Shankara Hindu philosophy ("I am Brahma; you are Brahma") and its Westernized characterization that enlightenment is simply a state of mind. He was keenly interested in still little-known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf writings based on Indian astrology that were the property of a class of Indian gurus and their disciples. Desani was convinced that he had received personal readings from Nadi text purveyors that relied entirely on the palm leaf pages written decades, if not hundreds of years, before he was born, and which correctly predicted his name, birthplace (Africa), parents' names, names and descriptions of the women with whom he had been in love, details about his health, his gurus names and other obscure, sensitive facts that seemingly only he could know.
Desani first came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1967 as a Fulbright exchange scholar. Within a few years he settled in Austin where he shared a full professorship in Oriental Philosophy with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Anglo-Indian writer. Desani taught undergraduate Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught undergraduate Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. Each also offered graduate seminars on related topics. Temperamentally and physically the two men could hardly have been more different, yet they became good friends. Being the late-Sixties, their classes attracted hundreds of students each semester.
As an instructor Desani exuded physical stamina, focus, great confidence and a sense of personal achievement which contrasted markedly with the then-in-vogue cool images of contemplative and reticent gurus and Zen masters. He projected a highly competitive — if occasionally combative — persona while acknowledging great respect for genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their crafts. Once in class a student asked Desani if he believed in the devil. Stopped short for once, Desani paused for many seconds. "I am very polite to the devil," he finally answered.
His teachings are respectfully summed up as follows: The ancient goals of Vipassana and Enlightenment are real and attainable. However, the quest is difficult and is for the few, not the many. Others should simply try to live good, ethical lives.
A recurrent theme in Desani's Theravada Buddhism classes was "thoughts are things" and "there are no small deeds." It seemed a strange life-lesson from a celebrated African-born writer whose achievements had been honored on three other continents. Desani would illustrate this theme with a story of the Buddha, post-enlightenment, walking with his ochre-clad monks through a village. Sitting on the side of the road was a beggar woman, bent and humbled with age and disease. As the colorful entourage moved through the town, the old woman looked up just as the Buddha past by. Reflectively, she folded her hands, bowed ... and died. The procession stopped. As a crowd gathered around the body, the Buddha commented that her death, at a precise mental moment of selfless reverence, caused her to be reborn as a devi, a beautiful celestial goddess.
By acting with compassion towards or thinking kindly of a stranger, an insect or an enemy, the mind is invariably and immediately calmed, pacified, comforted. Future mental moments are born from previous ones, each springing to life biased by its preceding thought. Thus the "small act", the "kind thought", the generous mental moment is its own, immediate, reward — and a first step on a path to more mental moment rewards — regardless of any next-life, karmic consequence or benefit. And that immediate benefit — or blessing, as Desani would say — comes whether you are a beggar or a major player on the world stage. It's surprisingly easy to find inspiring examples of small acts of generosity leading to remarkable results. Desani's penetrating insight that there are no small deeds and that thoughts are things — conclusions from his decades of intense mental culture and faiths-based practices — is his under-appreciated contribution to Buddhism and to world thought.
At UT, Desani published a number of papers. Unhappy with existing academic texts related to Buddhism, he created The Yellow Text of Theravada Buddhism for his classes. The anthology, with his several added notes, properly positioned the course as an educational/philosophical inquiry rather than as a religious survey or study. Desani also taught courses in mental yoga, the Bhagavad Gita and on the Irish philosopher P.G. Bowen's The Occult Way and Sayings of the Ancient One.
Post-65, Desani became an American citizen; he qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded him by his '58 blue Thunderbird. His daily ritual included lengthy phone calls with close associates, a drive to the campus to pick up mail, a courtly bow to the Philosophy Department secretaries and home again to work on his writings, revisions, and plans, as well as to prepare for his monthly full moon prayer day and less rigorous daily spiritual duties.
Through his years in Austin, Desani befriended and was aided by about a dozen students, former students, and several of adult women who, as members of the local Theosophy Society, initially got to know Desani by auditing his classes. Eventually, one patron, Ida Maberry, a wealthy local rancher, encouraged Desani to move into a rental house she owned. He paid only a nominal rent. When Ms. Maberry unexpectedly died another student, G., provided shelter. Finally Blossom Burns, a well-known Austin artist, perennial student and patron of the UT Philosophy Department offered a 600-square-foot art studio on her property. Desani lived there nearly 20 years.
In 1994, Naseem Khan, a journalist for the UK's Sunday Independent, visited Desani at his home/studio. Khan provided his readers with an accurate description:
…You are just now in Austin, Texas, and your air-conditioned coach is drawing up on a quiet, wooded side road. Beside you, higgledy-piggledy steps waver up a bank to the secluded, ground floor apartment of Govindas Vishnoodas Desani. … Desani's home for the past 20 or so years fits the begetter of Hatterr. Like the book, it is an amalgam, a mish-mash and gloriously impure. It has the air of a warren. All on one level, taking up the whole of a ground floor, it gives no impression of true scale. For Desani has divided and sub-divided [the place] into a series of small interconnected cubbyholes, all crammed with ephemera, memorabilia, piles of magazines, devotional objects, books on everything from Chinese medicine to American law and knick-knacks, both curious and gimcrack. "I like to collect little things. They please me," Desani said. "That, too, is a kind of worship…."
Desani's 650-square-foot bungalow comprised a kitchen, sitting room, prayer room, bedroom, entry way and den. Walls were covered in homemade bookshelves punctuated by Yantras and artworks depicting Indian deities. Here and there Desani would dangle ornaments or bracelets. The house was often filled with flowers brought by former students and friends mingled with the heady aromas of curries and incense. The curator of the Austin Japanese Garden in Austin's Zilker Park gave his permission for students to pick lotuses for Desani's special full moon days which involved a day of silence, fasting, prayer and meditation.
On most weekends Desani would play host to those who came to help with projects that might range from re-organizing his wall-to-wall library to improving an object found in a junk shop by spraying it gold. At the end of the day tired helpers would crowd Desani's tiny sitting room and wolf down one of his out-of-this-world curries punctuated by Lay's Potato Chips ("a very healthy food") as he shared one of his life lessons with an always rapt audience.
In some cases, help and support was provided for more than 30 years and included, all told, many thousands of hours spent aiding Desani with his writings, his accommodations, procuring food and flowers, his legal and literary affairs and, finally, arranging for and providing financial help, companionship, and care to an aging, ailing friend and mentor. The surviving group of helpers — once as close-knit and dysfunctional as any family — are today strangers again.
Desani spent his last years in failing health, cared for by the ever-shrinking group of former students and 24-hour home care nurses, all Americans. He died at 91, far from his Summit-City, in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas.
An Incomplete Legacy
Desani's ambition that a complete anthology of his writings — fiction and non-fiction — be collected in a single volume remains unrealized. The Rissala, as he titled it, was submitted in the mid-'80s to a major New York literary publisher. By then, however, the market for collected works of living writers — never large — was tiny; the publisher, describing himself as 'abashed', rejected the submission.
Similarly, autobiographical accounts of Desani's spiritual inquiries and quests — to be based on his voluminous Indian journals — was also "not willed," as Desani might have put it. (A former student and helper, John Hinds, has provided Some Further Thoughts on Rissala on his desani.net site. Mr. Hinds' comprehensive blog also features many reminiscences of his time with Desani, including transcribed notes from conversations, scanned programs, letters, and so forth. His thoughts on Desani's literary and vipassana tradition legacy are very relevant. Of particular interest is Note from Meeting with Desani during which Desani apparently shared his perspective and personal philosophy regarding the interplay between consciousness and concentration; the meditative life and being a householder.)
In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received Desani's papers, including the original manuscript of All About Mr. Hatterr and his journals. Aged, handwritten palm-leaf Nadi texts that Desani had carbon-date-tested in hopes of proving that his birth (and thus a specific, detailed future event) had been foretold were gifted to Boston University in care of his good friend and academic sponsor John Silber, then BU president, now deceased. (Results of the carbon-dating tests, conducted about 1979, were inconclusive.) UNICEF is believed to be the only beneficiary named in Desani's will; the organization retains world copyright to his writings.
Much of Desani's property at the time of his death remains unaccounted for. For example, in the first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), at least one semester's worth of lectures on Theravada Buddhism and Yoga were tape recorded. Similarly, the disposition of Desani's unique library and collection of artifacts from his spiritual quests, as well as numerous related drawings and illustrations, is unknown.
Shortly after his death, Desani's collection of colorful gemstone rings was professionally appraised and sold piecemeal to former students. The modest proceeds of a lifetime's quest for perfection, truth and beauty went to UNICEF.
Editor's Note: Readers are cordially invited to send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Emails of general interest will be posted. Over the years we hope to provide further insight into G.V. Desani's teachings and examples of his world-class fiction, commentary and lectures. Our goal is simply to chronicle, as fully as is permitted, the legacy of a man whose teachings and writings have, if anything, greater relevance today than they did during his lifetime.
The desani.org site is dedicated to his memory and that of Blossom Burns and Ila Maberry.